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What is Life? by John Clare

“What is Life?” is written by “the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet,” John Clare. He belonged to the British Romantic Period. This poem was first published in Clare’s best-known collection of poetry, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, in 1820. The contemporary readers highly praised this collection. In “What is Life?”, Clare talks about a number of ideas related to life. These include time, happiness, hope, disappointment, trouble, and many more. It seems the poet has his explanation ready for each human emotion. Through this piece, the poet implies the idea of true happiness and how human beings are drawn by other emotions except it.

  • Read the full text of “What is Life?” here, along with the analysis section.
Analysis of What is Life by John Clare


Summary

The poem directly begins with the question in the title. In each section, Clare asks a number of questions and answers them in poetic terms. In the first stanza, he describes life by using the metaphor of an hourglass and the image of retreating mist in the morning. Furthermore, he asks readers about the length of life and happiness.

In the second stanza, Clare talks about “vain hopes.” The disappointment of having useless hopes stings right into the heart. The next stanza is all about troubles in life. Clare is amazed by the bountiful nature of life’s troubles. Besides, the trouble of disease is under the control of “Fate.”

The fourth stanza is about death and peace. While the last stanza again returns to the first question. Here, the poet describes how an individual feels when he is stripped of his mortality disguise. It teaches us how to prize the happiness that we care less about. We can understand its importance when we are called to heaven or simply when we die.

Form, Rhyme Scheme, & Meter

Form

Clare uses a regular rhyme scheme and meter in “What is Life?” The text consists of a total of five stanzas. Each stanza does not have a regular number of lines. The first stanza contains six lines, and the next contains five lines. Then, in the third and fourth stanzas, there are nine and five lines, respectively. The last stanza consists of eight lines.

Rhyme Scheme

Let’s have a look at the rhyme scheme of each stanza:

  • Stanza One: AABCBC
  • Stanza Two: DDEDE
  • Stanza Three: FFGFGHIHI
  • Stanza Four: JJKJK
  • Stanza Five: LMLMNLNL

The first four stanzas begin with rhyming couplets (lines ending with the same rhyme). In the next lines, Clare uses an alternative rhyme scheme such as BCBC. There is only a difference in the scheme. It occurs in the last stanza. Here, all the lines rhyme alternatively.

Meter

To scan the lines, readers have to begin with counting the syllables. In each line, there are ten syllables. While reading, the stress falls on the syllable next to an unstressed one. So, each line contains five iambs, and the overall poem is written in iambic pentameter. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first stanza:

And what/ is Life?/—An hour/-glass on/ the run,

A Mist/ re-treat/-ing from/ the mor/-ning sun,

    A bu/-sy, bustl/-ing, still/ re-pea/-ted dream;

Its length?/—A mi/-nute’s pause,/ a mo/-ment’s thought;

    And hap/-pi-ness?/—A bub/-ble on/ the stream,

That in/ the act/ of seiz/-ing shrinks/ to nought.


Poetic Devices

Clare makes use of the following poetic devices in his poem “What is Life?”.

  • Rhetorical Question: Each stanza of this piece begins with a rhetorical question. Besides, within the stanza, the speaker asks a few questions regarding others topics as well. For instance, Clare asks about life, life’s length, and happiness in the first stanza.
  • Metaphor: There are a number of metaphors. In the first line, life is compared to an “hourglass” and a retreating mist. Readers can find other metaphors in the following stanzas.
  • Alliteration: The repetition of similar sounds in neighboring words can be found in “busy, bustling,” “seizing shrinks,” etc.
  • Personification: Clare personifies the “gale” in the second stanza. He invests it with the idea of divesting or robbing someone. 
  • Apostrophe: It occurs in the first line of the third stanza. Here, the poet personifies “Trouble” and evokes this abstract idea.
  • Epigram: This device is used in these lines, “‘Tis but a trial all must undergo;/ To teach unthankful mortals how to prize/ That happiness vain man’s denied to know.”


Themes

Clare’s “What is Life?” does not revolve around a particular theme. It contains a number of important themes that include the futility and temporariness of life, happiness, hope and disappointment, life’s troubles, fate, and death. Clare talks about all these themes in separate stanzas. For instance, in the first stanza, he focuses mainly on the transience of life and the nature of worldly happiness. Both are temporary in nature. While, in the following stanza, he deals with the concept of “vain hope” that leads to utter disappointment and distress. The final stanza of the poem contains the most important theme, vanity, and true happiness.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis and Explanation

Stanza One

And what is Life?—An hour-glass on the run,

A Mist retreating from the morning sun,

    A busy, bustling, still repeated dream;

Its length?—A minute’s pause, a moment’s thought;

    And happiness?—A bubble on the stream,

That in the act of seizing shrinks to nought.

The first stanza begins with the question in the title, “And what is Life?” Clare interestingly uses conjunction at the very beginning. It is used for conveying a sense of continuation. After reading the title, readers might have been thinking about their version of the life. In the first line, the speaker indirectly tells them to read about his views on life and some other concepts related to it.

According to him, life is like an “hour-glass” that is always on the run. This metaphor refers to the idea of mobility as well as the paucity of time in one’s life. In the next line, he compares life to the mist that retreats after the sunrise. It is a repetitive dream filled with various activities.

Besides, the time one has to live is extremely limited. The speaker hyperbolically says that life is a “minutes’s pause” and a “moment’s thought.” It does not last long. In the next lines, he asks readers about happiness in life. He describes this idea by comparing it to a “bubble” floating on the stream. When we try to seize the bubble, it shrinks to nothing.

Stanza Two

What are vain Hopes?—The puffing gale of morn,

    That of its charms divests the dewy lawn,

And robs each flow’ret of its gem,—and dies;

    A cobweb hiding disappointment’s thorn,

Which stings more keenly through the thin disguise.

The second stanza is about meaningless hopes and their consequences. It is important to clarify what “vain Hopes” are. When one desires something that is simply unrealistic given the circumstances. These hopes are like the “puffing gale of morn.” Gale is a very strong wind. Having unrealistic hopes can have disastrous effects on one’s mind.

Clare describes the consequences by using natural imagery. He depicts how the gale divests the “dewy lawn” of its charms. Besides, it also robs a tiny flower of its “gem.” Here, “gem” is a metaphor for dew. If we compare the flower to our soul and the dew to true happiness, we can understand the meaning of this line. The blind desires rob us of our mental peace and happiness. Afterward, it dies, leaving us in utter disappointment and dissatisfaction.

The poet discusses how the “cobweb” of desire hides the “thorn” of disappointment. It stings through the thin veil of life, and the scar remains throughout one’s life. After reading the whole stanza, it seems the poet is talking about unrequited love. Such is the beauty of the poem that it flexibly fits into any situation dealing with human ambition and disappointment.

Stanza Three

And thou, O Trouble?—nothing can suppose,

(And sure the power of wisdom only knows,)

    What need requireth thee:

So free and liberal as thy bounty flows,

    Some necessary cause must surely be:

But disappointments, pains, and every woe

    Devoted wretches feel,

The universal plagues of life below,

    Are mysteries still ‘neath Fate’s unbroken seal.

The third stanza begins with an invocation to “Trouble.” Clare personifies this abstract idea and invests it with life. According to him, nothing can suppose what it needs except the “power of wisdom” (a reference to wise humans). Trouble is liberal in nature. It can happen in anyone’s life. Hence, the poet asks whether there is a cause behind the troubles in everyone’s life.

In the next lines, Clare presents another interesting idea. He says only the “devoted wretches” (dedicated human beings) face disappointments, pains, and woe. The wise ones know the art of detachment. They are neither too attached to worldly desires nor to temporary pleasures.

The last two lines tap on the theme of fate or a man’s unavoidable death. According to the poet, the “universal plagues of life” (life’s troubles) are mysteries. They are controlled solely by “Fate.” So, fate is behind all the sufferings in one’s life. None can avoid its control over life.

Stanza Four

And what is Death? is still the cause unfound?

That dark, mysterious name of horrid sound?—

    A long and lingering sleep, the weary crave.

And Peace? where can its happiness abound?—

    No where at all, save heaven, and the grave.

In the fourth stanza of “What is Life?”, Clare’s persona asks about death. According to him, death is an unfound cause. It is the dark and mysterious name of the haunting sound. In this way, the poet compares this abstract idea to a “horrid sound.” In the next line, he uses another metaphor to compare this idea to a “long and lingering sleep” that a weary man craves. It means: when a person becomes weary of life, he seeks death.

In the last two lines, the speaker asks readers about peace. He searches the location where peace can be found in abundance. In the next line, he provides the answer. He says it can be found only in heaven and in the grave.

Stanza Five

Then what is Life?—When stripp’d of its disguise,

    A thing to be desir’d it cannot be;

Since every thing that meets our foolish eyes

    Gives proof sufficient of its vanity.

‘Tis but a trial all must undergo;

    To teach unthankful mortals how to prize

That happiness vain man’s denied to know,

    Until he’s call’d to claim it in the skies.

The last stanza begins with the question present in the very first line. Here, Clare asks about life again. But, he gives a different perspective to look into the question. He asks about life when it is stripped of its disguise. Here, the “disguise” stands for the human body. It is a hint at death.

When one is stripped of their mortal body, life no longer remains a worthwhile thing. Death shapes our understanding. Then everything that meets our “foolish eyes” gives proof of its vanity or meaninglessness.

Furthermore, the speaker compares life to a trial that each human being has to undergo. It teaches ungrateful humans how to appreciate true happiness. When alive, people tend to ignore this happiness and chase after transient things. They cannot understand its importance until mortal beings are called to claim this everlasting happiness in heaven. Hence, life is a lesson that should be learned wisely!

Historical Context

John Clare was the greatest laboring-class poet of 19th-century England. He is considered the “quintessential Romantic poet” and “The Northamptonshire Peasant Poet” as well. Being influenced by James Thomson’s The Seasons, he began writing poetry. His first book of poetry, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, was published in 1820. The poem “What is Life?” was included in this collection. This piece showcases Clare’s knowledge of the natural world and his metaphysical depth. It contains several conceits that are used to describe human emotions beautifully.

Questions and Answers

What is John Clare’s poem “What is Life?” about?

“What is Life?” by John Clare is all about the meaning of life and true happiness. This piece explores a number of transience feelings and emotions and how they set traps for human beings. We begin to understand the importance of spiritual happiness only after death.

What is John Clare’s most famous poem?

John Clare wrote a number of beautiful poems. Among his vast array of poetry, “I Am” is the most famous poem.

When was “What is Life?” published?

The poem was first published in 1820. It appeared in his first collection of poetry, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery.

What is the theme of “What is Life?”?

This poem taps on several themes that include the transience of life, happiness, the inevitability of death, and disappointments. The main idea of the poem concerns the importance of spiritual happiness in life.


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